Friday, 28 September 2012


Morten Berg writes
In my little newsletter for Danish customers of my language service, I wanted to write about the pronunciation of the letter g.
I have drawn on your introduction in LPD, and the matter seems pretty straightforward until the Greek/French gynecology, etc., come up, with their /g/.
First I thought that it could be that y is pronounced -aɪ-, but then what about gyrate, etc.?
I’d be grateful if you could help me out.

I suspect there is no easy way to help. There is no good spelling-to-sound rule for g before the ‘softening’ vowels i, e, y. Sometimes we have g, as in give and get; but in most cases (including in particular with words of Greek, Latin, or other non-Germanic origin), we have , as in general and ginger.

The problem arises because of the so-called “velar softening” that affects/affected Latinate words in English. The historical velars k and g, spelt in Latin and then French as c and g respectively, have, when they occur before a vowel spelt with one of i, y, e, developed into modern English s and respectively, while retaining the same spelling. This leads to spelling-to-sound uncertainty in some words of other origins, and in particular in the case of words from Ancient Greek. So some people say encephalitis with s, with velar softening, but others with k, without it; and some say pedagogy with -gi, but others with -dʒi. The first part of the first word is derived from Greek ἐγκέφαλος ‘brain’, the second part of the second from ἀγωγη ‘leading’.

Final -gy pretty reliably has no matter what the origin of a word is, as in strategy, analogy, clergy, mangy. Even here, though, as just mentioned, there is some fluctuation in pedagogy and demagogy, presumably because of the contaminating influence of pedagog(ue), demagog(ue), which of course have g.

The entry for gynaecology in the on-line OED has not been updated from the 1900 edition. Interestingly, it reveals that at that time the pronunciation of this word had not yet settled down: there was evidently uncertainty about both the initial consonant and the first vowel. I think it is clear that a century later we have settled for ˌɡaɪn-. But who knows why?

I cannot tell you why gyn(a)ecology and other words from the Greek gyn(a)ec- γυναικ- have g for most of us nowadays, while gyrate and other words with gyr-, Greek γυρ-, have .

Nor can I tell you why most Americans pronounce Elgin with , though in Britain we say it with g. And my illustrious predecessor A.C. Gimson was ˈɡɪmsən, although there are other bearers of this surname who call themselves ˈdʒɪmsən.

Even Latin-derived words are not always clear-cut. Probably none of us are entirely certain about loci, algae and fungi. not to mention the plurals of diplodocus and sarcophagus.

Sorry, Morten.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

resusc and pleb

To celebrate my return home after a third period of hospital stay this year, I thought that in this and the next blog posting we might discuss certain medical terms.

The first question is: what English word spelled with final -sc has the c silent?

I’d never come across it in writing before, though it’s a word familiar in its spoken form ˈriːsʌs to anyone who watches medical soaps on television. It’s short for resuscitation, the emergency medical process intended to manually preserve intact brain function in a person in cardiac arrest or major trauma until further measures can be taken to restore spontaneous blood circulation and breathing; or the place or unit devoted to this process.

But how do we write it? At least some people spell it resusc, derived from the full form resuscitation by simple truncation. I first came across this spelling while browsing through the Oxford Handbook of Clinical Specialities (as one does), though I cannot now find the exact locus again. Here’s another example, from YouTube.

The OED, on the other hand, knows only the spellings resus and resuss (and bizarrely considers the word ‘chiefly British’).

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In other news (“Gategate”)… As journalists have pointed out, conservative whip Andrew Mitchell’s alleged use of the term ‘f***** pleb’ last week to insult the policeman who barred his way outside 10 Downing Street not only betrays his Flashman-like upper-class or public-school (Rugby) background but also attests to his age (if he were younger he’d’ve said ‘chav’ instead) and reveals his rather poor command of Latin (his colleague Boris Johnson, after all, who is a good classicist, would know that plebs is a singular mass noun, and pleb an ignorant back-formation from a word mistakenly taken as including the plural ending, like cherry from cherise or pea from pease).

You can draw what conclusions you see fit from the fact that I included an entry for ‘pleb’ as a headword in LPD, with ‘plebs’ in the same entry but also included as a separate headword.

(blog, 6 Dec 2011)

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I’m under instructions to take things easily for the next four weeks. So I’m going to reduce the frequency of blog postings to just three a week: on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Thursday, 20 September 2012


Do you pronounce trauma as ˈtrɔːmə or as ˈtraʊmə? Does it start like trawl or like trousers? THOUGHT or MOUTH? What about its derived adjective traumatic? Do you distinguish between physical trauma (A&E) and psychological trauma (Freud)?

Most words with the spelling au are pronounced with (RP) ɔː. That is what we have in saucer, author, applaud, paunch, Paul, and so on.

There are various other possibilities for au. In cauliflower and sausage the vowel is ɒ. In aunt it is ɑː (AmE æ). In gauge it is .

In French words it is usually əʊ, as in chauffeur, gauche, mauve and sauté, though I have noticed that in the name De Gaulle, rather than the expected əʊ. it is quite often ɔː (which is actually a closer phonetic fit to French o).

In German words, though, we get , as in (sauer)kraut, Strauss, Faust(ian) and Gauss(ian). However the trade name Braun usually has ɔː, whilst Audi can go either way.

We also often get rather than ɔː in a number of scientific words of Greek origin, such as the trauma we started off with, and also glaucoma and tau. But this does not apply to those words of Greek origin that are NOT particularly scientific: autograph, nautical, authentic. The latter have come to us via Latin and/or French, while the former are taken directly from Greek: τραῦμα ‘wound’, γλαύκωμα ‘greyness’. It’s interesting that somehow even non-classicists can tell the difference, and even classicists are not tempted to use Latin-style in words of direct Latin origin such as augment, auxiliary.

A quite special case is aural, not a Greek word, sometimes pronounced ˈaʊrəl so as to distinguish it aurally (sorry) from oralˈɔːrəl.

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I shall be out of circulation for the next few days. Next posting: 26 Sept.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

the symbol ɮ

The Council of the IPA is in the throes of preparing a new on-line version of the IPA Chart. By this I do not mean they are revising any of the symbols or their definitions: it is more a matter of designing the display, and in particular of selecting a suitable font for the on-line display of the Chart.

In a sense the choice of font is trivial. As long as the Chart is available in HTML form, with the symbols assigned their appropriate Unicode encodings, it is a simple matter for the user to choose the font to use for displaying it, just as with any kind of plain-text (non-graphic) web page.

Nevertheless, this does seem to be a suitable moment to revisit the shape of one particular symbol, namely that for the voiced alveolar lateral fricative, which in our usual font for this blog (= Segoe UI or Lucida Grande) looks like this: ɮ.

So if you forgive me I’ll recycle part of my blog for 3 Nov 2006, when I ventilated this issue.

The problem is that the shape ɮ is not exactly in accordance with the official decision made by the IPA Council when the symbol was first adopted, in 1938, which reads as follows (m.f. 61, p.15).

Translated from the phonetically transcribed French, it reads as follows:

The proposal to replace ɮ by [the second symbol shown] is therefore approved. We think nevertheless that the form proposed by Chatterji can be employed without disadvantage by those who prefer a symbol less remote from the old ɮ.

Chatterji’s proposal was a compromise between the ʒ-shaped right-hand side of the ‘old’ symbol and the straight side of the ‘new’. This compromise shape is the form that Daniel Jones adopted for the symbol in the 1949 Principles booklet (p. 11, also p. 50):

Except as graphics (above), I can display neither Chatterji’s compromise nor the form approved in 1938 — because they are not represented in the fonts available to our computers. Remarkably, this formal decision by the IPA seems to have been somehow forgotten or overlooked as we moved from hot metal typography to software fonts.

I do not recall any decision either at the 1989 Kiel Convention of the IPA or elsewhere to change back to the older shape. But the IPA Handbook presents the symbol as an “L-Ezh ligature”, and our current Chart shows the form ɮ. Unicode calls it LATIN SMALL LETTER LEZH (U+026E). All available computer phonetic fonts show the same ɮ shape.

Ah well, I suppose this is only a question of mere glyph variants. And it’s probably too late now to do anything about it even if we wanted to.

By the way, the Unicode book also repeats the Principles assertion that ɮ is “dhl” in Zulu orthography. But Zulu has had a spelling reform, and (as rightly recognized in the IPA Handbook) the current spelling is “dl”. The same applies to the related language siSwati. The surname of the Swazi royal family is Dlamini ɮaˈmiːni, and in Zulu ‘to eat’ (with the infinitive prefix uku-) is ukudla uˈɠúːɮa. The site of the famous battle that used to be spelt Isandhlwana is now written Isandlwana. It’s still pronounced [ísanˈdɮwáːna]. (After /n/ you get a laterally released affricate rather than the lateral fricative used in other positions.)

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Welsh patronymics

I recently met someone whose surname is Uprichard. He introduced himself, pronouncing it juˈprɪtʃəd. But someone else I used to know who also bore this surname pronounced it ʌpˈrɪtʃəd.

The name is not to be found in the Oxford Names Companion, but its etymology would appear to be pretty straightforward. Just as Upjohn is of Welsh origin, a patronymic from John with the prefix ap ‘son of’, so Uprichard must presumably be from Richard with the same prefix. In modern Welsh it would accordingly appear as ap Rhisiart.

The ju- pronunciation is then to be explained as arising from the spelling: compare utility, ukulele, upas, Urals.

I don’t know what the etymology of the well-known novelist John Updike’s name is: but it looks as though that would be quite different, being of Germanic (= English) origin, ‘upper ditch/dyke’.

The Welsh for ‘son’ is mab maːb, corresponding to q-Celtic Mac, Mc-. In English it can be reduced to b-, as in Bevan, Beynon, Bowen, and some cases of Barry and Beaumont; or to p-, as in Parry, Pugh (ap Huw), Pomphrey/Pumphrey, Powell (ap Hywel), Preece/Price (ap Rhys), Probert, Prothero (ap Rhydderch), presumably Prodger and indeed Pritchard. Upjohn and Uprichard (?) seem to be the only cases in which it surfaces in English as Up-.

For the counteretymological spelling pronunciation of initial U- as ju we can compare the placename Uttoxeter, Staffs, which can be juˈtɒksɪtə or ʌˈtɒksɪtə, or even ˈʌksɪtə. It appears in the Domesday Book (1086) as Wotocheshede and may mean ‘Wuttuc’s heath’.

There's also Udimore in Sussex, which can be ˈjuːdɪmɔː or ˈʌdɪmɔː.

Monday, 17 September 2012

repertory repartee

I’m looking forward to reading David Crystal’s latest, Spell it Out, ‘the singular story of English spelling’.

Meanwhile, although I haven’t yet seen the book, I have seen a review, published in Saturday’s Guardian.

I was disappointed that the strapline for the review read “Sam Leith on a lively exposition of how language changes”. Sam Leith, or perhaps rather the Guardian’s subeditor, ought to know that “language” is more than spelling; and that the book, being about our spelling and how it got that way, barely touches on how the language as a whole has changed over the centuries. What about the gradual changes in English syntax, morphology, lexis and phraseology? They are of much greater import than the superficialities of spelling.

David Crystal himself would never have been guilty of such loose terminology.

Perhaps I can at this point recycle something from my blog of 14 April 2008. I had been reading an on-line interview with David. In answer to a question about what it’s like writing and performing with other members of the family, David was quoted as saying

Ben (his son) trained as an actor, I've been in an amateur repartee company for many, many years...

The question is whether this was an intentional witticism by David, or a straightforward mishearing by the interviewer. Repertory, repartee.

Repertory is phonetically quite an interesting word. It’s OK for the Americans, since they maintain a strong ɔː vowel in the -ory ending. But we Brits weaken it to schwa, which leaves weak vowels in three successive syllables: ˈrepətəri. As usual, the penultimate schwa is subject to possible disappearance through compression, giving just ˈrepətri.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that it sometimes gets misheard.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

new words

I’m always on the lookout for words that people use but that aren’t (yet) in LPD, so that I can add them for the next edition, whenever that may be. (Last time, the publisher abruptly asked for 5,000 additional entries, which is not something one can supply overnight or at a few weeks’ notice. Better to be prepared.)

One such word I have seen or heard a few times recently is ghrelin, the hunger-stimulating peptide and hormone. This word has not yet made it into the OED, or indeed to any dictionary that I know of. But it scores a million and a half Google hits.

The origin of the name is acronymic: growth hormone-releasing peptide, with the -in suffix characteristic of hormones, perhaps from inducing. Wikipedia claims that the name also bears reference to the IE root ghrē ‘grow’ (as in green, grow, crescent, increase, etc.), though this is clearly coincidental.

The discovery of ghrelin was reported by Masayasu Kojima and colleagues in 1999. The name is based on its role as a ''growth hormone-releasing peptide'', with reference to the Proto-Indo-European root ''ghre'', meaning ''to grow''. The name can also be viewed as an interesting (and incidental) pun, too, as the initial letters of the phrase ''growth hormone-releasing'' give us "ghre" with "lin" as a usual suffix for some hormones.

The only pronunciation I have heard is ˈɡrelɪn.

Another word new to me is inotrope, with its adjective inotropic. An inotrope is ‘an agent that alters the force or energy of muscular contractions’ (Wikipedia). This word has a straightforward etymology, from Greek via scientific German, as befits a medical term. The first part is from the Greek ἴς, ἴν-ός, ῑν- ís, ín-os, īn-‘muscle, fibre, nerve, strength’ (OED). My cardiologist pronounces it ˈaɪnətrəʊp, which is also what Wikipedia gives, though the OED, at inotropic, hesitates between and ɪ as the initial vowel. The M-W Collegiate also offers the possibility of initial for the adjective.

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I shall be busy over the next two days. Next posting: 17 Sep.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

1902 ʒapɔnɛ

Having dug out the 1902 volume of Le Maître Phonétique for yesterday’s blog, I was glancing through it when I came across the following phonetic specimen of Japanese, which I thought might be of interest to those of my readers who know or speak that language.

Strangely, the introduction to the specimen is written in phonetically transcribed French, but the notes accompanying the transcribed passage are in phonetically transcribed English.

I hope I am not insulting everyone’s intelligence if I translate the introduction into English for you. It reads as follows.

The following text comprises part of the materials collected by our colleague E. R. Edwards, which he is using in the preparation of his great and impatiently awaited work, A Study of Spoken Japanese. It was written from the dictation of another of our colleagues, Dr Yasugi [jɑsɯŋi]. who is at the moment in Russia, and whom we had the pleasure of seeing in the m.f. office three months ago. This is probably the first time that a reasonably lengthy Japanese text has been published in a form accessible to Europeans.

Here is a larger version of the actual specimen. Click to enlarge further.

I am in no position to comment on the text itself nor on the accompanying notes, though I did notice a few points.

  • In the first line, I believe that the ŋ in o-musùmeŋo would probably be g in today’s Japanese, and similarly in seŋɑre in the third line.
  • I suspect that wɑtɑkʃì in line 3 and again in line 7 ought to be wɑtɑʃi, with no k.
  • Is the square-bracket-like mark in line 1 and again in line 4 intended? (If it was meant as a pitch-accent mark, that was not a sign approved by the IPA at that time, and is not explained in the notes.)

In connection with fuːfu (line 3) a note overleaf reads

(f) in dʒæpənijz iz ə vərɑiəti əv bɑileibiəl frikətiv; it iz prədjuwst bɑi drɑiviŋ ði ɛːə əɡeinst ðə tijθ ən bouθ lips witʃ ə niəli bʌt nɔt kwɑit klouzd ənd ə slɑitli drɔːn ɑut ət ðə kɔːnəˑz. it iz, striktli spijkiŋ, ə lip-ən-tijθ-mɔdifɑid (h).

Nowadays we might write it narrowly as [ɸ], or phonemically as /h/.

Monday, 10 September 2012

false alarm

Some issues never go away. An email arrives via the LPD “Ask Professor Wells” address given on Longman's LPD page and on the CD-ROM bundled with the dictionary.
Is there a recent change in the depiction of English r sound from [r] to [ɹ]; if I understand it, now the regular English character [r] (the lowercase of the eighteenth letter of the Latin alphabet) is used for depiction of Spanish r sound (a trill), and the upside down [ɹ] is assigned to represent the English r sound.
In case I failed to express myself here is what I mean: For the word solarium IPA pronunciation was [səˈlɛərɪəm], now should we write it as [səˈlɛəɹɪəm]?
If my assumption is correct does your book's latest edition reflect that change?

No need to panic. It's a false alarm.

Needless to say, there has been no such change in the IPA, recent or otherwise. I have not changed the transcription of this consonant in LPD, nor do I plan to. The writer’s assumption is NOT correct. Oh, and by the way, solarium is not transcribed as səˈlɛərɪəm in any edition of LPD. (For BrE I write səˈleəriəm.)

I haven’t bothered to track down exactly when the symbols r and ɹ received their current definitions, but it was certainly more than a century ago.

(I’ve just inspected the 1902 edition of the IPA Chart to confirm this — see fragment below. As usual, click to enlarge. Note that r is listed as (consonne) roulée, ‘trill’, and ɹ as fricative. By the way, the inverted g and inverted ʒ at the end of the fricatives linguales in this chart are glossed in the accompanying explanation as des sons Tcherkesses ‘Circassian sounds’ — possibly they are retroflex, i.e. the sounds we would nowadays write ʂ, ʐ.)

IPA symbols have always had to be interpreted in accordance with conventions implicitly or explicitly defined by the transcriber who uses the symbols.

In the words of the IPA Handbook (CUP 1999; p. 29),

Any transcription is connected to a speech event by a set of conventions. In the case of an impressionistic (‘general phonetic’) transcription, the conventions are precisely those lying behind the IPA Chart, indicating for instance that the phonetic value of [ʔ͡k] is a simultaneous velar and glottal closure. In the case of a phonemic transcription, the conventions also include the ’phonological rules’ of the particular language which determine the realization of its phonemes, such as the fact that for some varieties of English the lateral phoneme /l/ is realized with an accompanying secondary articulation ([ɫ]) when not followed directly by a vowel or /j/ in the same word. Likewise, the realizational information which is not explicit in a particular allophonic transcription is, in principle, provided by conventions.

It is convenient (= practical and sensible) for us to use the same phonemic symbol t for the unaspirated dental plosive of French, the aspirated dental plosive of Swedish, the unaspirated alveolar plosive of Czech, and the aspirated alveolar plosive of English.

In general, phonemic symbols should be as simple as possible. That means letters of the ordinary lower-case Roman alphabet in preference to special letters such as ɛ ɹ ɫ, and the avoidance of diacritics as far as possible. For detailed discussion of the issues involved, see for example Appendix A (Types of Phonetic Transcription) of Daniel Jones’s classic An Outline of English Phonetics, or Part I (Introduction) of David Abercrombie’s English Phonetic Texts (London: Faber and Faber, 1964, or of course the IPA Handbook or its predecessor, the 1949 Principles of the IPA booklet.

So the English consonant at the beginning of red can be written phonemically as r or allophonically ~ impressionistically ~ general-phonetically as ɹ. Both ways of writing it are ‘IPA’; both are equally ‘scientific’; both convey the same information.

The problem is how to convey this point clearly to non-specialists such as my correspondent.

Just to confirm, in the transcribed texts of the 1902 Maître Phonétique the symbol r is used for all the various r-sounds of both English and French, even though at that date the notion of ‘phoneme’ in the modern sense had not yet been developed.

Friday, 7 September 2012


How do you pronounce the adjective from Singapore, i.e. Singaporean?

With most English suffixes we can be clear about their effect on word stress. Some have no effect at all, e.g. -ing. Some attract the main stress, e.g. -eer, -ette, as in mountaiˈneer, kitcheˈnette. Some cause the main stress to fall on the syllable before the suffix, e.g. -ity, as in aˈcidity, viˈcinity.

But with -ean there are two possibilities. In some cases it throws the main stress onto the preceding syllable, just like -ity. Thus we say cruˈstacean, Proˈmethean and Shakeˈspearean. But in other cases it attracts the main stress to itself. Thus we say Euroˈpean, epicuˈrean, Hercuˈlean, Jacoˈbean, Pythagoˈrean and Sisyˈphean.

In the case of Caribbean we are split. Some of us (mainly Americans) treat it like Shakespearean and say kəˈrɪbiən; others (mainly Brits) treat it like European and say ˌkærɪˈbiːən.

Which brings us to Singaporean. In LPD I gave priority to ˌsɪŋəˈpɔːriən; but I’ve just heard a British television newsreader say ˌsɪŋəpɔːˈriːən. (Irrelevantly, some speakers have ɡ after the ŋ. That’s not what I’m focusing on.)

I think Tyrolean is equally variable.

At least with the less familiar words in -ean this uncertainty means that no one need worry about which stress pattern is correct. Acheulean, anyone? Cytherean, Labradorean, Mozartean, Saussurean, Tartarean?

Thursday, 6 September 2012

VPM 101

Commenting privately to me about my recent posting about taps, a correspondent ventured
If I may ask, how would one go about making an alveolar tap voiceless as opposed to voiced?

What can I say in reply, except that you switch off the voicing as you make the tap? But for some people perhaps that is easier said than done.

One of the first things I teach any beginners’ phonetics class is basic consonant classification: Voicing, Place, Manner, and how to detect and control each of these. I usually start with hearing and making the difference between voiced and voiceless sounds.

I would demonstrate each point myself, before asking everyone in the class to perform likewise. Everyone has to join in making what might seem to be silly noises.

First, make a vowel sound, for example [ɑː]. Feel the vibration of your vocal folds by putting your thumb and fingers on your Adam’s apple (the outside of the larynx). Then make a voiceless sound, for example [sss], and feel the larynx again. Notice the difference.

More dramatically, cover your ears with your hands. Say [ɑː] again and notice how the buzzing fills your head. Do this again with [sss] — no buzzing.

Then alternate a pair of sounds such as sss — zzz or fff — vvv. (These pairs are fine if you’re a speaker of English. If not, or if your language doesn’t have these sounds, we may have to use other ones.) Do this as you cover your ears, and note the difference inside your head.

Then make mmm. Is it voiced or voiceless? Is there buzzing in your head as you say it? (Yes, there is, It must be voiced.) What about lll? and ʃʃʃ?

Then make the same sound mmm, but without the voicing. Just breathe out through the nose, with the lips firmly together. You’re doing m̥m̥m̥. Alternate mmm — m̥m̥m̥.

Do the same with nn̥n̥n̥. If you had a cleft palate you might pronounce six as n̥ɪʔn̥. Do it!

Try ɑpɑ ɑpɑ ɑbɑ ɑbɑ. It may be more difficult to detect voicing or voicelessness here, because the consonantal articulation is much quicker: we just bring the lips together for a moment, then release them. (In m, on the other hand, we hold the articulatory position for a longer time.) Do ɑkɑ. Is the k voiced or voiceless?

You can try other experiments. Any consonant you can make voiceless you ought to be able to make voiced, and vice versa. What is the voiced counterpart of k? What is the voiceless counterpart of ð?

If you can make a voiceless velar fricative, xxx, then simply add voicing to get the voiced counterpart, ɣɣɣ.

Say ˈɣala (Greek for ‘milk’), and ˈlweɣo (Spanish for ‘then’).

Similarly for every voiced sound you can make: just switch off voicing to get the voiceless equivalent. Try a voiceless [] Do ɑlɑ — ɑl̥ɑ. The only special difficulty with the voiceless tap ɾ̥ is that the sound is extremely short. As d is to ɾ, so t is to ɾ̥.

I don’t think you can usefully discuss phonetic classification unless you have mastered this sort of thing: not just intellectually, but practically.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

spinach sandwiches

An odd thing about British place names ending in -wich is that the suffix can be pronounced either ɪdʒ, with a voiced affricate, or ɪtʃ with a voiceless affricate, as implied by the spelling. So Norwich is usually ˈnɒrɪdʒ, but can also be ˈnɒrɪtʃ; and similarly with Greenwich, Woolwich, Dulwich, Harwich, Horwich, Dunwich, (West) Bromwich and so on. (I think these all have both options, like Norwich. But it's difficult to be absolutely certain.)

This also applies to the common noun sandwich, the food item named after the Earl of Sandwich. I actually did a BrE preference survey for this word, which revealed that 53% of my sample preferred -wɪdʒ in this word, 47% -wɪtʃ. (Some people, apparently, have in the singular noun but in the plural and the verb.) Actually, sandwich is unusual in that the historical w is not lost — unlike Norwich, Greenwich, etc., which have no spoken w in the suffix (in BrE).

There are other exceptions, too. Ipswich ˈɪpswɪtʃ retains w and has no variant with . Similarly Nantwich, Middlewich, Droitwich, and Bloxwich. You may notice something about the syllable weight of the first part of the name here.

Apparently Colwich, Staffs., the location of a serious rail crash in 1986, is ˈkɒlwɪtʃ, despite the light first syllable.

Strangely enough, the same hesitation between -ɪtʃ and -ɪdʒ is found in the common noun spinach. The OED tells us that in this case the variability extends as far back as its Old French origin, espinage ~ (e)spinache.

So can we speak of a neutralization of voicing in the case of affricates in final position? No, because large and larch, edge and etch are always distinct. Well, can we say there is neutralization just in the case of final affricates in weak syllables, then? No, because Ipswich and so on never have , and because everyday words such as marriage, ˈmærɪdʒ, spillage, carnage, passage, porridge etc, not to mention Cambridge, never have .

The alternation is restricted to just these odd -wich proper names with a light first syllable (short vowel, one single following consonant), plus sandwich and spinach.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

follow the rules!

Some EFL learners don’t seem to quite believe the rules the textbooks give, or hesitate to follow the logic implicit in them.

Minfeng writes as follows, I assume from China. He or she (I can never tell with Chinese personal names) is clearly oriented towards BrE rather than AmE; I have adjusted the phonetic symbols to those I customarily use.

1) In the strong form, the pronunciation of "to him" is /tuː hɪm/; but when it's in the weak form, is it /tu ɪm/, or /tə ɪm/? I think it's /tu ɪm/, since /tu/ is used instead of // before vowels (/ɪ/ here). I would like to know whether I am right here?
2) If I'm correct with 1), I assume that the weak form of "to her" is /tu ə/ instead of /tə ə/.
3) Should I pronounce the weak form of "for him" as /fər ɪm/ since "for" is followed by a vowel (/ɪ/, but not /h/ here)?
4) Same as 3), should I pronounce the weak form of "for her" as /fər ə/ (but not /fə ə/)?

My answer, perhaps too laconic, was

1 Yes
2 Yes
3 Yes
4 Yes
Just follow the rules.

Of course, it’s a little bit more complicated than that.

First, a phrase such as to him or to her does not as such have a strong form or a weak form. Rather, it is the individual words making up the phrase (i.e. to, him, her) that have strong and weak forms. It is perfectly possible for the preposition to be pronounced strong and the pronoun weak, or vice versa (for some discussion of this issue, see my blog, 1 October 2009).

Secondly, in real life the weak forms of him and her do not necessarily involve dropping the h; and the weak form of her does not necessarily involve weakening the vowel from ɜː to ə. That’s why in LPD I give the weak forms (sic, plural) of him as hɪm, ɪm, and the weak forms (sic again) of her as hə, ɜː, ə. (Let's ignore the question of whether the strong-vowel variants can truly be called weak forms, and overlook the fact that ɪ is sometimes a strong vowel, sometimes a weak one. I'm talking about the forms used in positions where on other grounds we expect a weak form.)

Thirdly, in real life it is not unknown for speakers to weaken to to even before a following vowel and/or to fail to use a linking r with for. So in real life you do sometimes get pronunciations such as tə ɪm, tə ə, fə ɪm, fə ɜː. Nevertheless, EFL learners are recommended to follow the rules as given which will always generate an acceptable pronunciation.

Monday, 3 September 2012


You may have noticed that this blog is neither anonymous nor pseudonymous. It bears my true name at the top. If you are for some reason curious about me or my life, googling my name will quickly reveal to you more information about me than you could reasonably want to know. You will find links to my home page, my personal history, and my (unauthorized by me) Wikipedia entry. On my home page you will see my email address and even my home phone number. (I have never hesitated to make these contact details available on the web. It helps journalists and others who might wish to contact me to do so.)

But many of those who leave comments on this blog hide behind nicknames or pseudonyms, sometimes fantastical. We don’t know who they really are. (There are some exceptions here. I know that “Ed” is Ed Aveyard, and that ”clinicallinguistics” is Martin Ball, while “wjarek” is Jarek Weckwerth. And of course there are several commentators who, I assume, use their real names.)

I ask that from now on everyone who comments on postings on this blog should use their true name. I refer you to a recent article in the Guardian by Jonathan Myerson.

If the way your Google or other account is set up means that you have to sign in with a nickname or pseudonym, then please sign off your comments with your true name at the end.

You know who I am. I’d like to know who you are. And I’m sure I’m not alone.